Universal looks to technology to better control its guests

September 16, 2023, 3:33 PM · When you visit a theme park, how much do you want to decide what to do, versus being told where to go?

Universal has filed a patent application for an ambitious crowd control system that would give Universal the ability to direct individual visitors around their theme parks through the use of wireless devices. Yes, all major parks do this to some extend already via their mobile apps. But instead of just telling visitors wait times around the park and hoping that they take the hint, Universal's proposed system would provide direct instructions to individual visitors and could even require them to do attractions in a particular order.

The application was published Thursday and is entitled, "System and Method for Crowd Management and Maintenance Operations." Here is the direct link to view the entire application yourself.

Like many patent applications, this proposal reflects a cumulation of several iterative changes over what's already happening in the parks. Indeed, the application explicitly continues several previous Universal patent applications.

The idea, ultimately, is for a park to be able to move its guests around like pieces on a chessboard, distributing them evenly around the park so that they all can experience as much as possible with as little wait time as necessary. This also would allow the park to distribute its personnel and capital resources in response to that guest flow with peak efficiency, as well.

Patent application for System and Method for Crowd Management and Maintenance Operations
An illustration from Universal's patent application

Experienced theme park visitors have the ability to do much of this themselves. They know to hit popular attractions early, before lines grow, then move over to shorter queues later in the day. A system such as the one Universal proposes can help new park visitors move around like more experienced guests.

Universal's patent application references wearable devices as the way that people will get messages and guidance from the central controller, but it notes that guests could use their own mobile devices, presumably phones and Apple Watches, as well.

The application builds upon much of Universal already has done with its current wearable devices: Volcano Bay's TapuTapu and Super Nintendo World's Power Up Bands. TapuTapu already supports virtual queuing with wireless notification. The Power Up Band supports requiring guests to complete designated tasks before being admitted to an attraction. In this case, guests must win four games in the Nintendo-themed land before they can enter the Bowser Jr. boss battle game.

The proposed system would determine when an attraction or area is becoming overloaded, then it would message guests in or near that area to go to another location. It could suggest an order in which people experience specific attraction in an area to ease guest flow for all. And it could limit admission to a location to people who already have experienced the less-crowded alternatives.

Now a system such as this requires a certain level of cooperation from visitors to work efficiently. If people do not use the wearables or pay attention to their phones, or if they simply ignore the messages that they receive, they won't move around in the way that the system wants. Shorter wait times are one incentive to comply, but guests have to believe that they actually will enjoy those shorter waits if they play along. Requiring compliance to get into popular rides might be more effective.

Then there remains the question of how such as system would work with Universal Express. Does this exist alongside a paid line-skip program, or does something like this become a future version of, or platform for, a line-skipping system?

One way or another, popular theme parks continue to look for ways to manage their crowds better, whether it is by limiting them through higher prices or advance reservation requirements or by distributing them inside the park via some technology, such as what Universal has proposed here.

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Replies (10)

September 16, 2023 at 4:33 PM

I am seriously getting old. Welcome to WeSaySo Theme park. You give us your life savings to enter but you get to keep your children. Our new app, if it has not drained your battery, will guide you to the 3 least popular rides in the park. If you need to recharge that phone there will be one outlet in the parking lot(no re-entry allowed). Want more options, Express Plus(additional fee) will let you choose the order of the 3 least popular rides in the park. Plus you get front of the line access to Krusty Burger(Which may actually be a good thing). Want to feel like you have control, leave the kids at the hotel pool and get here at 5:00am. Do not worry lifeguard comes on duty at 10:00. They will be fine. Now use our app to get a boarding pass. Congrats its group 800. Don't you feel good after driving cross country in the Truckster, Aunt Edna dying at the Grand Canyon and well Rusty. How could it not get any better :) Wait is Aunt Edna still on top of the roof in the ET Garage ???

September 16, 2023 at 6:41 PM

Before anyone gets too nervous, it's important to realize how many patents Universal puts out there. I've seen dozens over the years, and only a few have actually made it to the parks.
Personally, I like this idea, but ONLY if they use it in a "hey we recommend you go here" type of way, instead of "go here now." I personally won't use it, but I guarantee a large amount of casual visitors will love it. There's a kind of awkward indecisiveness that comes with going to theme parks with a casual group. A lot of sitting around trying to decide the next attraction to experience, and you end up doing the shortest wait that happens to be on the opposite end of the park and is also Journey Into Imagination with Figment. An app that recommends people to do things is smart and leads to a better guest experience for everyone. In my mind, it's like casually asking a cast member what they recommend next. Disney already does this well with Disney Genie (not plus), so Universal dipping their toes here is smart. (though what will they call it? "Blue Queue" with a velociraptor logo? "Ask Bob" with a 3D talking minion on your screen?)

September 16, 2023 at 7:37 PM

I just don't want ... any of this.

September 16, 2023 at 10:00 PM

Walt Disney World is already on my soft boycott list due to their use of virtual queues that restrict access to attractions. If Universal implemented a system like this that would seemingly restrict what you're able to do at a particular time, it would go on that list as well. While I'm all for apps that help guests to navigate the park and suggest activities of interest, unless a park is going to switch to a pay per experience model I'm strongly against anything that represents an additional hurdle to experiencing what's inside the gates.

September 16, 2023 at 10:14 PM

I have to wonder how many park guest actually download and utilize them park apps, especially outside of just scanning your ticket. Out of all of my friends/family trips, usually no one does. Outside if that, most of the park posted times are sadly way over estimated about 20 mins or so. *cough (IoA, USF, BGW and especially HersheyPk) On my last 2 visits to Hersheypark within the last 4 wks, they had Candymonium at 90mins at or after 6pm when it us only about 40. I've even shared the actual wait time to the staffer at the front of the line and he just said "yea, it's about to pick up so we're just getting ready".

September 17, 2023 at 3:27 AM

This just sounds like Universal answer to the free Genie service that Disney has basically abandoned (I know it’s still on the app, but I haven’t seen an ad or promo about the service since shortly after its release) with wearable technology. Genie is utilized for Disney’s benefit, NOT for the guest’s satisfaction. Genie will suggest lesser attractions with little or no line to guests to spread out crowds (like rope dropping Tom Sawyer Island). I doubt anyone here would get sucked into using it, but the guest that does no research and doesn’t know the reason behind ther service that gets burned by it.

September 17, 2023 at 8:29 AM

Okay, so if I can get on the "don't panic" train, I can see this being useful for particular narrative activities and events - going through a location as a "story" linking to exclusive activities/events/food, etc. But if that was to be the standard way to experience the park, then you don't have a park, you have a "Dungeons" experience.

September 17, 2023 at 10:42 AM

I'm waiting on the Ride Now app that allows us to bid on the opportunity to experience an attraction "Right Now."

The Ride Now+ app would add the ability to bid on the random opportunity to block the "Right Now" bid winners.

September 17, 2023 at 11:33 AM

I think this is actually a useful idea. It sounds like it will plan out the most efficient way to experience the park. The downside is that it will need a large percentage of guests to use/follow it in order to correctly plan out the optimum day.
Think of it like variable speed limits on a motorway(it adjusts the speed limit to prevent traffic jams by reducing how soon traffic gets to the bottleneck point), by directing people to rides at specific times it can reduce the amount of time that you spend waiting in queues.

September 18, 2023 at 4:38 PM

It sounds good on paper. However it does not take on account the human factor. What if i have to go to the bathroom. What if i forgot my medication in the room. Or i am very Hungry and rather go to eat than the show or the ride. Its one thing to follow the route on the map becouse its the more direct or the one with less traffic. Other thing is to take you away from the wonder of discovery or from the confort of familiarity or the satisfacction of experience. We are becoming a herd of sheep. And we also pay happily for it.

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